Sunday, July 29, 2012

All sorts: Beyond, Sightseers, Finder, The Score, Solaris, Reset

This week, I have been mostly watching Parks & Recreation, and reading more Back Issue magazines.

But there is still plenty of time for all sorts of other stuff.

Beyond was a minor Marvel mini series from a few years back, by the much missed Dwayne McDuffie and Scott Kolins. It came out right at the same time as all that Civil War nonsense, and was spectacularly out of fashion at a time when Reed Richards was being a suspicious dick towards Spider-man at a bloody funeral.

No wonder it’s held up so much better than most of the Marvel titles at that time. Beyond is still a pleasantly nostalgic read, and even though it’s just another six-issue comic designed mainly to give characters like Hank Pym, Firebird and Deathlok something to do.

It’s intentionally hitting those nostalgia buttons – targeting specific vibes of time gone by. Pym and The Wasp have been fighting the good fight since the sixties, there is some very silly, very seventies cosmic shenanigans, an eighties dash of treating it all with super-seriousness, (and just the slightest touch of realism) and a nineties tendency to throw a bunch of random characters from the back catalogue together and treat them like actual human beings.

So I ended up liking Beyond much more than I thought I would when I finally got around to it recently. It had almost no impact on the Greater Marvel Saga, but it’s all the better for it, and manages some sharp characterisation (It’s the only comic where I’ve ever liked The Hood, and it also uses the only version of Deathlok I’ve ever given a damn about).

McDuffie was always so good at these straight-up superheroics, with his work only suffering when it was hammered into some Grand Editorial Vision, and Beyond is the perfect example of this.
It’s one of my favourite times of the year right now, when the NZ International Film Festival rolls into town.

I don’t go as crazy as I used to, but I always see half a dozen films each year – usually a mix of weirdo horror, supreme arthouse, worthy re-release and some kind of music documentary. I already saw Cabin In The Woods with an appreciative audience last week, and a magnificently loud and brilliantly huge print of The Shining yesterday, and Killer Joe last night, which managed to be even more spectacularly trashier than I expected.

But my favourite film of the festival so far is undoubtedly Sightseers. I’ve made no secret of my fondness for Ben Wheatley’s films, and after the fucked-up gangster shit of Down Terrace, and the fucked-up horror shit of Kill List, Sightseers is the fucked-up romantic comedy shit.

It’s really horrible, and really funny, and I’m always after that in a film. It’s got tender moments of madness, some achingly beautiful natural landscapes and some remarkable gore. It has somebody getting their face bashed in with excruciating detail while there is a passionate reading of Jerusalem on the soundtrack, a wicked ending and a giant fucking pencil. It’s about ley lines, and politeness, and broken people finding some kind of happiness.

It’s just about everything I want in a movie.   

It’s a shame that the thing that makes Carla Speed MacNeil’s Finder comic so interesting – that fact that it’s so complex, impossible to categorise and difficult to even describe – are the same things that make it hard to get into in the first place.

I mean, I’m 350 pages into the first big collected volume, and I have no fucking idea what’s going on.

But I want to know more, and that’s always a good sign.

On the other hand, the latest Parker book by Darwyn Cooke – The Score – is effortlessly smooth and goes down like good whisky. There is less of the storytelling experimentation that Cooke used to hook the reader in the first two books, but the more straight-faced the storytelling is, the more effective it is.

It only took me a couple of decades to get around to watching Andre Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It was totally worth the wait.

Tarkovsky reckoned the main purpose of the scene on the highway was that it would drive all the stupid people out of the cinema, but it’s brilliantly intense cinema, even when nothing is happening. (And very, very funny – of course a modern Soviet filmmaker would have a hard-on for a modern traffic system.)

And the bit at the end with the dripping water is driving me crazy. Top stuff. Now I’m off to watch Stalker.

For a new Peter Bagge comic, the four-issue Reset min-series ended on a surprisingly sweet note. Bagge is getting soft, man.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

His kinda town: Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

Harvey Pekar always had a lot of things going on, so it’s no surprise that there are more of his excellent books coming out, two years after he died.

A new one came out a couple of weeks ago, and is all about Mr Pekar’s take on the complexities surrounding the state of Israel, and there are likely to be more. Harvey was always working on something, and there is still a life’s worth of writing to be re-appreciated and unearthed.

But even if there is more to come, his outstanding book about his home town is a proper Final Work From A Great Talent, as Harvey reflects and ruminates on his town, and his life, and the way they mix together.

Ego can be defined by geography, and if you live in one place long enough, you’re going to become intertwined in ways that are impossible to overcome.

Harvey Pekar could not be more Cleveland if he tried – he shared with the city those feelings of aching loss for the past, fierce pride for the present and slightly upbeat resilience for the future. He was broken down a lot of the time, but not completely. Harvey liked to moan a bit, but he was still always enthusiastic about the things he loved, and he loves his city.

His book about Cleveland – beautifully drawn by Joseph Remnant, whose consistency is above average for a Pekar book - mixes personal nostalgia for the town with historical lessons, a look back at the founding of the city, and the day his favourite baseball team took out the championship, and the day he met his first wife. It’s another rambling comic by a rambling man, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Harvey doesn’t just dredge up dry history, he goes straight for the details of the things he loves, like a decent second hand bookstore, and the sadness of nice neighbourhoods descending into slums, and more baseball, and his mate Toby, and the way you can still eat the ancient filling in the pipes of an old Twinkie factory, or the quiet beauty of a walk in the park.

I never liked Harvey's comics until a couple of years ago - they always seemed so clumsy and stilted, but then I realised that was part of the point.

Now, I can't get enough of Harvey's work, and I feel a little bad that I'll never be able to tell him how much I appreciate him. His comics are snapshots in time, and have a voice that is absolutely distinct.

It's not just the way he captures the voices of the people he meets (although his skill at choosing just the right quote that sums up a person is unparalleled). His books after the last few years have had that sense of tired anger at injustice, but also a pleasant and cosy vibe - he just wants to have a yarn with somebody in his books, and isn't too bother if nobody is really listening.

It’s this sense of warmth, along with those these witty lines and brief asides, and the glimpses at the lives of the interesting folks he meets along the way, that make Harvey’s comic so charming, right to the end. He can make wide and general acknowledgement towards the loves of his life, or how easily he manages to maintain a frugal breakfast.

The Cleveland book is all over the place, which is always when Harvey was at his best, and a fine testimony to a man and his city. We’ve heard some of these stories before, but it’s nice to hear them again.

Even if there are a few more Harvey Pekar books to come, this gentle and harshly fair book sums up the man’s life perfectly, and will stand as an enduring work.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fast-forwarding to the good bit: Invincible volume 14 - The Viltrumite War

While The Walking Dead has shuffled its way to the top of the sales and a sea of critical opinion with all the relentless drag of an undead horde, Robert Kirkman’s other long-running series also keeps trucking along.

Invincible – the story of a super-powered teenager who discovers he’s descended from an alien race of enormous assholes with incredible power – is approaching its 100th issue, and even though it hasn’t inspired any insanely successful TV show, it has been comfortably telling its story at its own pace.

Kirkman’s comics can be shambling, silly and very, very predictable, but by God, the man has a work ethic, and he sticks to the story he wants to tell, when other writers are distracted by new and shiny things. And this perseverance can really pay off. Three or four trades of the Walking Dead can climax in shocking fashion in one brutal moment, and years and years of set-up and development can lead to unexpected rewards in Invincible.

Or you could just skip most of it and get straight to the point. That works too.

I read the first six or so trades of Invincible a couple of years ago, thanks to the wonderful local library, and they were pretty enjoyable. A pleasantly old-school comic, with clear, open and cheerful art by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, that also takes some extremely gory liberties with the human form as superheroes smash through bodies, sending blood and guts flying everywhere.

Invincible’s main appeal – outside of these intense action scenes that would pop up out of nowhere – is its main characters. There was the occasionally painful Kirkman cliché - often involving characters who run off in tears for plot reasons, only to stumble into something REALLY HORRIBLE - but Mark Grayson is a genuinely likeable character who always tries to do the right thing, with a vast range of goofy and powerful background characters.

It was a pleasant read, even with those insufferable book titles (They’re all eighties sitcoms! Hilarious!), but it was also easy to let it slip away as more and more books came out. I lost track after those first half dozen, but didn’t miss the comic that much.

And then, at least two years after I last cracked open an Invincible book, I saw the fourteenth volume on the shelves of the library. It’s called The Viltrumite War, and I quickly realised it was the culmination of the main stroyline for Invincible, as everything finally comes to a head, in an all-or-nothing drive to finally rid the universe of the cruel and terrible Viltrumite race.

Even though I missed eight volumes of the story, it wasn’t hard to follow what was going on. There were new characters, and new alliances and all that, but it was easy to keep up with the general play. I’m sure there are all sorts of story bits I just wasn’t getting, but all the character dynamics were clear.

And it was incredibly satisfying. There really is a huge amount of resolution, some balls-out superhero action, lots of lovely little character beats, and one last little twist at the end. It delivered on the promises first raised in the earliest issues of the comics, as the story finally faces an inevitable oncoming storm.

I’ve actually enjoyed Bill Willingham’s Fables comic more ever since it dealt with the whole evil empire, and moved on with life. The final battle against the Big Bad came and went, and new adventures and adversaries came along. It’s been accused of becoming a bit pointless, but my favourite stories are always a bit pointless and my affection for Fables has only grown over the past couple of years.

In a similar vein, I’m also glad that Invincible has not hung up his groovy goggles, just because he defeated the ultimate enemy, because the future is more unpredictable and uncertain, and that always generates good drama.

I’ll try not to let eight books worth of stories slip by before I check in again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

All the way back: Cor!! Annual 1979

It’s always a bit odd when I stumble across something that was a fundamental building block in my life-long passion for comics, and it might be something I haven’t read in 25 years, and I still recognise every page, and I never forgot any of this.

It’s good, but odd.

This week, I unearthed a kids comic hardback annual that I was given in the late seventies, hiding in a box full of old editions of the Gunniess Book of Records that I still can’t bear to throw out. According to the note on the inside cover, I was given it for Christmas 1978, a present from my Aunty Val and Uncle Soul. I was three. 

I’m thirty-seven now.

It’s the Cor!! 1979 annual, with Ivor Lott and Tony Broke, and Jasper the Grasper, and Hire A Horror, and Fiends & Neighbours, and loads of other laffs. The comic was one of many British kids weekly humour comics that were coming out at that time, but I always had a sneaky fondness for Cor!! (probably because of this annual). It wasn’t as boring as the Beano, or as goofily anarchic as Krazy, but it occupied a broad middle ground of chums and snacks and adventures.

New Zealand was saturated in these cheap, all-newsprint British weekly humour comics for kids in the early eighties, and I soaked up a lot of them, and it was easy to become a connoisseur. Whizzer & Chips and Buster were always high-quality affairs, but I hated The Beano and The Dandy - they were comics you only read if there was absolutely, positively nothing else. I had brief obsessions with even briefer titles like School Fun – which, hilariously, made fun of school - or Oink, which was one of the last gasps, a kid’s version of Viz that literally made me vomit once, and also gave the world Charlie Brooker.

I had a lot of issues of all of these at one time, but they were always so disposable, I doubt I have two issues left in the dozens of boxes of comics sitting behind me.

(If anybody’s wondering – Whizz-Kid For Life. I’ll tolerate a Chip-ite, but we can never be friends.)

The annuals weren’t quite so disposable as the weekly things, and I just never got rid of them, and now they are all I really have left. I’m glad I held on to them, because there are valuable lessons in this archaic comics.

Even though most of the one page strips are largely built around some crap pun and little else (like Jelly Baby, a baby that can stretch like jelly, or Jack Pott, a kid with a seriously troubling gambling problem), they’re also charming little slices of comic fun, from days gone by, and I can still remember how attractive that was as a kid.

They’re pretty harmless comics. They might have things that look ideologically dodgy to a 21-st century eye – including a gleeful appreciation of corporal punishment, an obsession with fried food & sweets and a firm insistence that a woman’s place is in the home – but most of the stories tend to be tiny little morality plays that do teach valuable lessons. Any characters that show too much pride, gluttony, envy, selfishness, jealousy or laziness invariably suffers for their sins in ironic fashion. Lesson number one for Young Bob: don’t be a wanker to other people, and life will be easier.

And so much time has passed since these comics were conceived, written and drawn, that they have become fascinating sociological documents. There are the touches of the everyday life in these strips – scenes where people are shopping for old fashions, and eating food that everybody knows is bad for them, and having a laugh at someone getting hurt - that have largely faded away from modern living over the past 30 years. These comics are far from reality, but contain hidden truths that can not be found in history books.

(My particular favourite dose of social comment in Corr!! Comic is Gus The Gorilla, the story of a groovy young brown man who doesn’t quite fit into a straight white society, who also happens to be a monkey. This strip came out at a time when there were actual race riots in London, and at first glance now looks horribly racist. Although it’s important to note that Gus always gets the last laugh in every strip, and is generally much, much cooler than anybody else.)

I can not lie – I got a bit emotional when I read the Cor!! annual for the first time in twenty years the other day. Before cracking open those stiff cardboard covers, I wouldn’t have been able to name three of the strips inside, but as I read the thing, I realised I remembered ever page, every line, every word.

How could I forget this? How was it sitting in my head for so long without me realising it? Who did these stories anyway?

There were never any credits on these comics, so I don’t know who the artists are, who the writers are, or anything like that, but I will always remember their work. And sheer class never goes out of fashion.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tentacles in trench coats: Fatale and Neonomicon

Lovecraftian horrors are a natural fit for pitch-black noir stories – they both share a horrified cynicism and lack of hope. One of them deals with existential terrors on the cosmic scale, and the other tends to focus on the dark pits of an individual soul, but sometimes there isn’t any real difference between those two things.

Two of the most recent attempts to go for a literary mash-up like this – to mix damsels in distress with people who have tentacles where their faces should be – come from two of comic’s most talented writers, and both succeed or fail on the relative merits of the artistic talents.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale brings these horrors into the dark streets of post-war LA, while Neonomicon, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, sees cosmic perceptions of time slap up against FBI investigations and horrible cults. They’re both good comics, and are both trying to tap into certain themes, but I definitely like one of them more than the other.

Fatale is the latest long-running story from the team of Brubaker and Phillips, following on from the artistic success of Criminal and Incognito. The first Fatale story arc wrapped up recently, but the second is already underway, with the creators showing their usual enthusiasm for getting things rolling with a couple of quick, solid stories.

While I still prefer Criminal, it’s hard to begrudge them the desire to stretch out a little bit, and mix some vast, eldritch terror amongst their usual cats of losers, wasters and honourable men.

It’s a lot bleaker than either Criminal or Incognito, but there is hope, with men and women – both good and bad – making terrible sacrifices to keep the horror in its place.

Meanwhile, somewhere else entirely, Alan Moore is embracing his inner Lovecraft  in the recent Neonomicon. It’s an Avatar comic, and fits the company’s overall style perfectly, with loads of gore, sexual violence and big ideas that never quite pay off.

There is always something worthwhile in an Alan Moore comic, and his latest little apocalypse does have the usual charms and wanking gags. The setting is more modern than the usual noir, but it still has plenty of detectives and sudden death and people skulking around in alleyways, a familiar formula from a thousands noir tales, even before the big, green monster shows up.

Neonomicon is more ambitious than Fatale, making a case for a new perception of reality and time that will be familiar to anybody following his (or Grant Morrison’s) work. But I ended up liking Fatale a lot more, largely because of Sean Phillips.

Jacen Burrows is Avatar Comics’ top man, working with some of the best writers in the world on hardcore adventure stories. He is pretty good at bringing the intensity with some startling gore, but I find his work just too stiff. While he’s got all the basic arts of craft and storytelling, his line is so rigid, it strangles the comic. It would be interesting to see him take on some paints or something, but his clear and open style is just too clumsy to be really effective.

Sean Phillips is a different case. He’s not tied to any one company, and tends to follow writers more than than anything else. His work with Brubaker has been consistently exceptional, capturing mood and action with equal grace. His brash and harsh line, soaked in sharp colours, is always gorgeous.

The Brubaker stories he illustrated are probably so successful because Phillips gets to draw the things he does best - shattered faces hidden in shadow, brief bursts of ultra-violence, the odd monster (in both creature and human form), and beautiful women with dark souls. And he gets to do it all in Fatale.

And so, while the ugly Neonomicon makes a sweetly compassionate argument that harbingers of the apocalypse don’t have to be total dicks about it, I enjoyed Fatale a whole lot more. Both stories have their flaws and strengths, but I can find no flaw in Phillips.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The art of penultimate pacing: The Boys #68

When Over The Hill With The Swords Of A Thousand Men  – the second-to-last story in The Boys comic – came to a close with a bloody affair on the White House lawn, I literally let out a sigh of relief, because I was convinced the large cast of largely-likable characters were doomed, but they had all made it to the end.

But The Boys isn’t one of those stories, where all the shit goes down in the penultimate arc, and then it’s all tying up and resolutions. This is the story where the shit goes down right to the end, and I really wasn’t expecting that.

I'm convinced it’s all HBO’s fault. I would argue that their policy of producing 10-12 episode television seasons has produced some of the greatest Art-with-a-capital-A in any medium in the past decade. There have been moments in TV shows like Deadwood, or The Wire, or even True Blood, that have been some of the most moving, intense and emotionally rich scenes I have ever seen in any medium.

A lot of these series feature a certain sense of pacing that has been obvious since The Sopranos – the second-to-last episode of a season was invariably the one where it all comes to a head, usually with an abrupt dose of extreme violence, and the final episode was usually all the fascinating fall-out.

Shows that had completely different plots and themes shared this storytelling trope, with both Game of Thrones and Mad Men conforming to this winning formula in both recent – and brilliant – seasons. Everything about the second season  led to the battle of the Blackwater, while the terrible suicide in the penultimate episode of Mad Men was the whole point of another brilliant run.

This practice has leaked into comics in a big way, and the most popular American comic writers have all picked up on this pacing. Writers with diverse interests such as Bendis, Brubaker and Johns follow it, all fascinated by the epilogue, with plenty of room for resolution and new set-up after the dust has settled.

Garth Ennis has also used it well. His Punisher Max series was a perfect example - it all came to a head in the penultimate Long Cold Dark, with the a drag-down fight with the toughest of all Frank’s enemies, and the moment in those final pages where he remembers a glimpse of humanity, and knows it is a light that is forever extinguished in his soul. The final arc – Valley Forge, Valley Forge tidied up all the loose ends, but the series really finished with Frank driving through the dark of the American night.

It looked like he was doing the same thing in The Boys, with the penultimate storyline taking care of all the apparent bad guys, but all those dopey superheroes with their banal carnage and mindless rutting were always the sideshow in the comic, and the proper story isn’t done yet. 

I just got the latest issue of The Boys yesterday, and it’s three issues into the final story arc, and nothing has been resolved, and it looks like it’s going right to the wire.

I do want the Female and Frenchie to go off and live on an island together, and not have to fight mean people, and I do want Hughie and Annie to work it all out, but I also wanted the one who dies in #68 to come through, because he was a decent and honourable man, but then his best mate goes and kills him with a grenade to the face.

It’s a shocking moment in a comic that has had its fair share of shocking moments, but I found it particularly shocking because I really wasn’t expecting it. This isn’t going to be the story with long goodbyes, this is a story that will be cut lethally short.

And even though it’s only got a few issues to go, and even though it’s not been running for half a decade, it can still surprise me with its pacing, while still getting in the odd knob joke. That’s always worthwhile.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

José, José, José!: All Star Western #10

All-Star Western is apparently one of the genuine sales successes of DC’s new 52 initiative, almost tripling the sales of Jonah Hex, according to some figures. And it’s all been done without any real change in creative team - the same good writers and extraordinary artists who made the most recent Jonah Hex comic series so unexpectedly tasty carried on into the All-Star.

A lot of that sales bump is undoubtedly due to the decision to tie Jonah Hex in with the history of Batman’s home town, with mixed results on the creative side. The comic has lost the sharp and sweet impact of the short stories in Jonah Hex, in favour of “Look, it’s the Penguin’s grandfather!”, but even though the story isn’t as tight as it once was, it is still a ridiculously entertaining bit of DC pulp western fluff (with some stunning Ladronn covers.).

And while some of that Owl tie-in stuff to modern Batman stories gets a bit tedious as it drags on and on, the comic does maintain the value of the sharp short story, with a decent back-up story in each issue which is well worth the extra $1 the comic costs.

Each of these short stories has had some lovely art on them from the likes of Phil Winslade and Jordi Bernet, but #10 has something special, with the legendary José Luis García-López showing up to do a Bat Lash story.

Seeing this splash page in my Saturday comics was a suddenly wonderful experience:

Look at the grin on Bat Lash’s mug! Or the way he’s swinging that pacifist fist! Or the guy in the darkened foreground, ready to bring a chair into the proceedings! José Luis García-López art is always welcome in this Tearoom, and the man has as much storytelling energy as he ever did.

García-López has been doing this for a long time now, and his obvious professionalism is all over that page. A splash in a short story is an extravagance, but there is tonnes of detail to pick apart in that one image, and the pregnant bride at the altar suggests all sorts of nefarious doings, while the fist-flying action gets the story rolling with a bang.

There is another seven pages of beautiful women, and bloodied fists, and lucky escapes. It’s prime García-López art, which isn’t surprising, because he’s been in the prime of his career since the early seventies.

I keep thinking García-López has retired (he’s well into his sixties by now), but he just keeps popping up here and there, and I realised he was always just popping up. Here and there.

There were a handful of powerful Batman comics, (including the brilliant Batman/Hulk crossover, with wonderful art that blew the lid off my eight-year-old head), and his Superman always has a real grace and power. Even though he was never on one title long enough to be remembered for a definitive run, he literally set the guide for DC superhero art for decades.

In the past twenty years, it’s been possible to find his art in things like Batman Confidential, a Deadman mini-series, random issues of Hawkman or The Spirit, a JLA Classified story, odd Elseworld books and Wednesday Comics. It’s never easy to predict where he might show up next, but his work is always so recognisable, and always so welcome.

While there is a lack of a definitive run that leaves the feeling that García-López has never really been appreciated, he has crafted a career of random precision that remains rewarding.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I ended up liking the most recent Jonah Hex comic. I was not a fan of Palmiotti and Gray’s superhero work in any way, but I ended up enjoying the series because of their sharp nature. Invariably done in one, with some kind of point, or some kind of showcase for somebody’s spectacular art, I was eventually hooked, two or three years into the run.

All Star Western is slightly disappointing, because I did love the way the previous series got straight to the point, and then ended, and that was that. But there are still great moments in the larger story – the journey into Gotham’s underground caves got completely mental, and the interaction between Tallulah and poor Doc Arkham in #10 is funny as hell – that keep the adventures of Jonah Hex fresh an interesting.

And the more chances to get a great artist like García-López on a great character like Bat Lash, the better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The faces of violence, with Dave Gibbons: The Secret Service 1-2

Back in the days when Alan Moore could still talk about Watchmen without choking on his own justified bile, he liked pointing out that Dave Gibbons was the only artist who could have done the story properly, just like Steve Bissette was the only one to do Swamp Thing justice.

His reasoning was that Gibbons’ background in architecture gave him the perfect foundation for such a structured and mannered work, Gibbons’ love of the perfect straight line defining the comic just as much as Doctor Manhattan’s view of time.

And this is how Gibbons is largely remembered these days – as a superb draftsman who can craft a comic almost to perfection. His work is always professional and always polished.

But he is much more than just a straight man to other writers’ whimsies – he’s also an awesome action artist that can deliver complex emotions with the minimum of detail, and he gets to do plenty of both in a new Mark Millar comic.

Of all the latest batch of Millar’s creator-owned work – which includes a new Kick-Ass comic and the fairly uninteresting Super Crooks - The Secret Service is the tastiest, thanks largely to Gibbons (although there is a Quitely comic coming).

Gibbons has the open and clear cartooning line that Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman and a lot of the early Mad artists loved, and it’s as amusing as it ever was, because it’s so damn serious. Gibbons is a master of the deadpan, and his characters often maintain an absolutely straight face, even when things can get totally absurd.

But he can also dial it all back, and make some fascinating comics out of a conversation between two people in a pub. A lot of Millar’s script for the first two issues of Secret Service - which also somehow feels like a slick, polished and popcorn version of the first issue of The Invisibles - is set-up, with page after page of a boy called Gary hanging out with his dodgy mates and dodgier family.

It could be tedious, but Gibbons is so comfortable with such a large – and ugly – cast of characters, and each is so effortlessly distinctive. You can easily tell the difference between a wide range off characters, while still seeing similarities between family members in their noses.

It’s wonderful character cartooning, and there are few professional comic artists who can express such joy or hope or despair through the curve of an eyebrow, and make it look so natural.

The first two issues do have a lot of set-up, but they also have plenty of violence

While Gibbons does get his chance to show complex emotions with a single crucial facial line, he also gets to draw a bride slashing open her new husband’s throat, and a couple of heads popping off, and a jet-pack, and several explosions.

One of the most reliable things about Mark Millar comics is that he will give good action artists good action to draw, and he frequently gets the best action out of terrific artists like John Romita Jr and Bryan Hitch. The writer’s underappreciated pacing skills giving his artists room to breathe and do so really crazy shit.

Gibbons has this ability to capture snapshots of time – there aren’t a lot of invisible speed lines, but he gets momentum into his strip by having things flying all over the place. The pre-credits action scene in issue one is full of missiles shooting through the air, blood splattering all over the furnishings and bullets kicking up in snow.

It’s exhilarating action cartooning, and there are four more issues of VIOLENCE (issue three’s cover has somebody getting bashed with a glass bottle) and slightly inappropriate thrills (the villain’s lead henchman is an amputee with those bendy leg things) to come.

The artist is still a magnificent draftsmen, and those skills are all over The Secret Service. Nobody does an establishing shot with such economy, and it’s still funny how these basic skills are lacking in some many other modern artists.

But even though he has been playing this game for decades now, Gibbons is still having fun, with his characters permanently stuck with serious stares, or having a laugh with some high-tech toys. It's what Dave Gibbons does best, and he is still doing it so well.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

‘You’re my hero’: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 2009

Spoilers, I’m afraid

I only just got the latest volume in the adventures of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen yesterday, but there are already plenty of annotations and commentaries out there, plenty of lock-picking of literary clues and examination, decoding hidden meaning in every background character.

I’m not having most of that. I’m giving almost all of them a miss (except for the excellent Mindless Ones posts, which at least has some self-awareness of how silly the whole thing is, while also showing an insane willingness to engage with big themes). Playing ‘spot-the-reference’ isn’t as important as it first looks – I always manage to miss 90 per cent of the familiar faces on the first read-through of a new League story. I completely missed the blatant Doctor Who appearances in 2009, and I honestly think Doctor Who is the greatest TV show of all time. But I never feel like I really miss anything, just because I don’t know who Corporal Cuckoo is. (I can still figure out What he is)

The references to literature, film, music and comics are often entertaining, and occasionally bring forward unspoken depths, but they’re not why I follow the adventures of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – I follow them because they’re rich and funny, and – as I’ve noted before – they are stories of immortal beings who are living extraordinary lives, and starting to crack under the pressure of keeping it inside the head.

And I follow them because they represent some real humanity at the heart of all fiction, and plead a surprisingly quiet case for building a better world through a bit of kindness, and a lot of compassion. Even if there has to be a lot of blood shed on the way.

 It’s not always easy to spot the humanity amongst Kevin O’Neill’s brilliantly grotesque architecture and equally ugly cast of characters, but it’s always been there in the series – Mr Hyde’s tenderness towards Mina before he dances off to his death, or Orlando’s melancholy as s/he watches the city s/he founded burn in the Blitz, or here at the latest apocalypse, with one of the main characters of the entire series reaching the end he always wanted – as a hero.

Allan and Mina and Orlando are all fictional characters, who are almost aware of their own unreality, and that gives them the sort of superposition that Alan Moore talked about in the Dance of the Gull-Catchers. Allan isn’t just Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hero of Africa, he’s every street-level loser who was once somebody special and wants desperately to do something meaningful again.

And he actually gets there. He actually gets his happy ever after.

As for the rest - Orlando remains, as ever, an eternal warrior, but Wilhelmina Harker, once one of the Absolute Victims of classic literature, has grown into immortality. And while it drove her around the bend for a while, the ultimate victim becomes the mother of a new age, bringing on a new aeon, which is always going to be strange and terrible for anybody used to the old one.

The suggestion at the end of Century – that the New Aeon in the League’s universe is a feminine one, a return to the harsh word and comforting embrace of Mother – brings an end to all those silly little games boys play.

A new female spin on old institutions is no bad thing. After all, it’s got to be better than all those adolescent and macho power plays of people like saddo Haddo and the four-hundred-eyes (and totally banal) Antichrist - all those schoolboy fantasies of holding the world in an iron grip are just pointless, and angry old men have ruled the world long enough.

Of course, Alan Moore is also an old man now, showing an old man’s understandable obsession with the end of the world. He’s also a bit out of touch – some of the references in 2009 are so quaintly 2003, and putting Omar’s Dad on the moon in the Baltimore Fun Club, or having Malcolm Tucker spout off on the TV doesn’t hide the fact that he’s more comfortable with older, more lived-in, fictions, and not just because they’re a lot easier to deal with legally.

But Moore is also telling a story about immortal people that also has immortal themes, and doesn’t forget that they while they are glorious fictional creations - heroes and monsters who have lived through the impossible - they’re still just people, with all the mistakes and fragility of everyday life.

It’s often noted that Moore and O’Neill will throw everything and anything into a League story, and there is even a bit of kitchen sink humanity among the metatextual mess. Life goes on for Mina and Orlando and any new recruits to the League, but Allan Quatermain finds some real peace and joy with his last breath, and that’s the kind of touch that keeps more looking forward to more and more adventures of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

It all got so silly so quickly: Ambush Bug in DC Comics Presents

I always think I’ve got all the Ambush Bug comics DC ever published - and it’s taken me years to get this far – but there always seems to be more. I’ve got all the mini series and all of the one-offs, but I keep stumbling across issues of Action Comics or Supergirl where the green fool literally pops in and out, and I have to get them, because I always enjoy Ambush Bug comics, just a little too much.

The most recent Ambush Bug finds were a couple of issues of DC Comics Presents, including the Bug’s first appearance. And even though these are undoubtedly clumsy and more than a little silly, and even though these comics are now nearly 30 years old, they’re still pretty bloody funny.

Ambush Bug would become synonymous with insane metatextual fun, but that’s almost totally missing in his first appearance in DCP #52. It a regular old 1982 DC comic, with an old and tired pre-Crisis Superman smashing into the missed opportunities that were the New Doom Patrol. It’s still Giffen’s creation, but with a script by good ol’ Paul Kupperberg, it’s missing that spark of the complete bonkers.

Here, Ambush Bug is a fairly goofy villain who even straight-up murders someone, and Giffen’s art as stiflingly slick as it ever got, (before he broke it all down again), but there is also  a nice little joke involving the word “Blooie!” and a surprise guest appearance by Judge Dredd (as a burst balloon), so it’s not totally worthless. First appearances aren’t always magical.

Twenty-nine issues later, and the Bug was just about ready for prime time with his own series, and showed up again in DCP #81. It’s the same character, but could not be more different.

The classic Bug team of Giffen, dialogue man Robert Loren Fleming and inker Bob Oskner were in place for the issue, and this last appearance with Supermen gave a good idea of the increasingly ludicrous direction Ambush Bug was rolling in.

It features Superman and Ambush Bug swapping minds, with the powerfully irresponsible Bug interfering with the plans of Kobra, the terribly serious master villain (the straight men in Ambush Bug stories were often the villains). It could be any typical DC plot from any time in the past 70 years, but is given life by going straight for the funny bone.

Serious superhero fans like serious superhero stories, and frown upon any straight superheroics that show too much parody or satire, but superheroes can also get way too self-important, and the rare doses of humour in the DC and Marvel universes are always welcome.

After all, there are plenty of Superman stories about JUSTICE and HONOUR and NOT BEING A DICK, it’s all right to have the odd comic like DCP #81, which has a Superman with a Bug’s mind uncontrollably running around and around the globe, waving his arms in the air in panic, or the real deal having to convince his robots that he really is Supes.

So issue number 52 of DC Comics Presents was fascinating from a historical viewpoint, and number 81 was just goofy enough to still gets some laughs, but it’s also fascinating to see how much the character (and Giffen) grew in between those two issues.

As the art grows chunkier and livelier, and Giffen starts doing strange things within the rigidity of a square panel, Ambush Bug grows from slightly goofy villain to outright lunatic, breaking out of the strict rules of a superhero universe, and using the position of the Fool to point out all the craziness.

This invariably pisses off all the right people, and after this brief burst of Bug madness in the eightioes, he has only made sporadic returns, in the wonderful Nothing Special and the frankly bizarre Year None, before disappearing into limbo again. We all get the Ambush Bug we deserve, but we don't get enough of him..

Friday, July 6, 2012

Nostalgia boners: Back-Issue #1-54

As well as being a thoroughly good bloke who lets people from the South Island borrow his Hate comics, pal Nik also has a standing subscription to Back Issue magazine, the TwoMorrows publication with a boner for Bronze Age frivolities, and he lent me a dozen of them, as well as all that Bagge goodness.

I got through the Hate annuals in less than an hour, but I’m still churning through the Back Issues a week later, because they’re so dense and rich, and it's taking me so long, even though they’re all I want to read at the moment. I was halfway through reading Simon and Burns’ The Corner, but that scintillating examination of the broken shards of the American Dream will have to wait a while, because I‘m more interested in finding out the secret history of the Dazzler.

I barely want to go to work, or leave the house, or read anything else. All I want to do is sit on the sofa and read Back Issues.

Of course, I’m the right age – 37 and a half, which puts my formative comic years firmly in the era of Infantino and Shooter, and Goodwin and Levitz. I have a deep and unshakable affection for the way Jim Aparo draws eyebrows, and John Byrne’s fantastically cute Franklin Richards, and those horrible Plop! covers, and the streetkid angst of Fallen Angels, and Dick Dillan’s endless professionalism, and Cockrum and Grell’s Legion costumes, and I can find something on all of that in one single issue of Back Issue.

Back Issue reminds me that I’m far from alone in this fondness for comics gone by, while also reminding me that there are a shitload of comics and characters out there that I still know nothing about. Even though the magazine limits itself to comics from the seventies and eighties (and lately the early nineties), that is still a lot of territory to cover, and a lot of digging that can be done.

The magazine is now up to issue number fifty-something, and there have now been dozens and dozens of fascinating articles and stories about comics I’ve never read, or the hidden backstories of old favourites. Some of it has been well covered, and stories become cliché: Things like Byrne’s ultimate idea of Wolverine - that he is somebody who could brutally kill Kitty in between mouthfuls of cornflakes - keep getting trotted out.

But there is still a tonne of new material generated about old favourites. Even subjects which were heavily covered in the past are worth reading, with years of hindsight producing keen insights. It’s also divorced from the hype of the now – so much new material on current news sites such as CBR or Newsarama is worthless PR pap, and even interviews with entertaining voices such as Moore or Morrison are just full of more regrettable shilling, and not enough hindsight. 

It can be a bit too enthusiastic, and there are declarative statements that leave a bad taste, and a lot of the interviews get a little too fawning, and there is a bit too much “And then in the next issue Nova fought the Mandarin and then he got in a fight with his parents and then he fought The Living Monolith”.

But editor Michael Eury maintains a good mix of material in each issue, and I might not like reading the interviews about some actor who was the voice of somebody in some early-morning cartoon from the seventies, but that's okay, because I am interested in the battle armour and exposed brains from the Luthor/Brainiac revamps in the early eighties.

It's also a beautiful product, with great art choices – the randomness of the pencil art collections that pad out each issue are always a delight, there are frequently beautiful comic covers and sketches, and just the right mix of text and art in the magazine itself to make each issue thoroughly readable.

And any passionate enthusiasm for art and story is always welcome. The magazine still has the odd dose of snark, but it positively glowing in its praise for old comics, and that kind of happiness is infectious. The articles can sometimes get a bit bitter, with justifiably pissed off creators grabbing the chance to settle some scores, and sometimes it can all get a bit melancholic, with lost opportunities and old regrets. 

But it's still largely a positive experience, and one I'm addicted to at the moment. I could go for a walk in the sun this afternoon, but I'd rather stay inside and find out whatever happened to Steve Skeates.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Growing older, but not growing up: Hate Annual #1-9

Peter Bagge didn’t really stop doing regular Hate comics when the ongoing comic ended with #30 in 1998 – they just became a lot less regular. He stills puts out a new Hate comic every couple of years, and there have now been nine issues of Hate Annual, and it’s always good to see a new one, and see what Buddy is up to.

I grabbed a random Hate book off the bookshelf on a recent boring Sunday night, and I’ve been getting back into Bagge in a big way ever since. Not just all the Hate comics, (I keep forgetting what happens to Stinky, and it still shocks me every fucking time), but things like the so-grim-it’s-hilarious Apocalypse Nerd, or the I-can’t-believe-he-got-away-with-this-at-DC Sweatshop, or his most recent book – Reset – which could be none more Bagge, or the still-funny early work in Neat Stuff.

Years ago, I fell in love with Bagge’s comics like all good 17-year-olds should, and I still adore them. That goofy exaggerated style he nailed down in the late eighties is still endlessly enjoyable, his stories are always funny, and there is usually a point to all that grotesqueness.

So it’s actually a little embarrassing to admit that I somehow missed out on the first seven Hate Annuals, and have only just caught up this week (thanks to pal Nik). I think I was just waiting for an inevitable collection, but I got the last couple off the shelves at the local comic shop, and they were so immensely enjoyable that I’ve now had to catch up with the rest. (There is still no sign of a collection of his stuff, as far as I can tell, even when the back-ups in the Annuals, including Batboy and some very local concerns, have been put into proper books.)

Bagge has actually done so many comics over the past decade and a half, that he is almost – shamefully – taken for granted. While new books by the likes of Clowes or Ware are almost an Event, a new mini series from Bagge might get a couple of reviews, most of which will point out that it’s more of the same. (I just did it too, three paragraphs ago.)

The fact that more people don’t take Bagge’s comics seriously might be because the artist himself doesn’t seem to take them terribly seriously. While there are certainly hidden depths in the Hate Annuals, and some horribly familiar exposures of the Human Condition, it’s those jokes that still stand out the most, and it’s always fun with somebody lips the hell out.

And, even after all these years of the same jokes, it’s still funny as fuck – in the first Annual, Buddy gets into an argument with a crusty old seadog, and while he’s hurtling insults, he’s really thinking: “I WANT HIS HAT!”, and that made me laugh out loud in public and look like an idiot, but I didn’t care. (Especially when it all pays off years later when he starts wearing an eyepatch and some nautical headgear of his own.)

I mean, Jesus, look at this:

No lie: every time I see that cover, I still laugh out loud.

Because that’s an exaggerated portrait of a man who has grown older, but hasn’t really grown up, and he’s okay with that. He’s still recognisably the same Buddy Bradley he was back in Neat Stuff, and it’s no surprise that he’s turning into a fine crusty old man, just like his crusty old man was.

And that’s the truth behind these jokes, that gives Bagge’s Hate comics those hidden depths. Our lives never turn out as we expect them to, and that’s okay, and you just have to go with it.

By the time he gets to the most recent Hate Annuals, Buddy Bradley has settled down with Lisa, has a son who is a bit weird – but not really any weirder than most kids – and it making some okay money. He still knows some of his old loser pals, but he’s left most of them behind, sick of all the bullshit of youth, and almost eager to become that angry old man on the porch.

And once you reach that sort of stage with your mates, you don’t have to see them all the time. It’s still nice to see how Buddy is doing, every couple of years in a Hate (semi-)Annual. We don’t have to hang out every weekend any more, but it’s worth catching up over a quiet beer sometime.